DHAKA, Bangladesh—Rescue workers Friday pulled a female garment worker from the rubble of Rana Plaza after more than 16 days buried alive—among the longest periods anyone has survived such an ordeal.
The eight-story building, which housed five garment factories, collapsed April 24, killing more than 1,000 people, one of the worst-ever factory accidents.
Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesBangladeshi rescuers retrieve garment worker Reshma Begum from the rubble of a collapsed building on May 10.
Long after hope of finding anyone alive had faded, army rescuers said they had broken through the mass of concrete and steel to a woman in her 20s.
She had fallen from the third floor into a Muslim prayer room into an air pocket in the basement, and remained alive by forcing a broken pipe up through a crack in the debris for ventilation, rescuers said.
Reshma Begum, who identified herself as a seamstress who worked on the third floor of Rana Plaza, had been banging the pipe against concrete to attract attention, after bulldozers had removed loose rubble that had been covering the area.
“I heard the sound and rushed towards the spot,” Abdur Razzaq, an army sergeant who was involved in the rescue, said in an interview. “I knelt down and heard a faint voice. ‘Sir, please help me,’ she cried.”
The rescue was broadcast live on national television. As she was lifted from the rubble, crowds that had gathered broke into cheers of “God is great!” Rescue workers wiped away tears.
“It’s a miraculous event,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said after visiting Ms. Begum in the hospital and congratulating the rescue teams.
Ms. Begum told rescuers she was unhurt and had survived by scavenging for food and bottled water in the backpacks of dead colleagues. She had been buried for 16 days and about seven hours during one of the hottest times of the year in Bangladesh, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees (35 degrees Celsius) and 80% humidity.
Her hair and face were covered in dirt as she carried out, wearing a purple and pink salwar-kameeze, and her scalp was showing where she had apparently lost big clumps of hair.
Doctors who attended her at a nearby military hospital said she was suffering from dehydration but otherwise appeared to have no major injuries.
At the hospital, a woman who identified herself as Ayesha Begum said Reshma was her sister.
“We’ve been waiting outside the building for two weeks,” said Ayesha Begum, flanked by another woman who identified herself as Reshma’s aunt. “We’d given up hope. God has brought her back for the sake of her little son.”
Reshma Begum came from the northern district of Dinajpur, according to Ayesha Begum. She said her sister had come to Dhaka four years ago to work in a garment factory so as to become more independent.
Reshma recently had separated from her husband and was bringing up her 5-year-old son, working as a seamstress in the New Wave Bottoms factory in Rana Plaza, she said.
The crowds around the disaster site had thinned in recent days, but on Friday evening, families clutching photos of missing loved ones were once again thronging the area hoping to see their relatives brought out alive.
“God is merciful,” said Afsar Ali, who said he was looking for his daughter. “We still have hope.”
There has been controversy in Bangladesh over the pace of the rescue operations. Right after the disaster, the Bangladesh government turned down an offer of help from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a spokesman for the office said.
In the first few days, volunteers were heavily involved, some using their bare hands. People held up handwritten signs asking for donations of oxygen cylinders, drills and water bottles.
Some relatives of those missing, angered by the lack of heavy-lifting equipment, clashed with police at the site.
Later, the army, which now is coordinating efforts, moved in with bulldozers and other heavy machinery. They have defended the pace of the rescue efforts, saying they were careful not to go too quickly and kill possible survivors.
Maj. Gen. Hasan Suhrawardy, who is leading the army’s salvage operation, said the pace would now slow again, since Ms. Begum’s survival had raised hopes, however slight, that other survivors could be in the wreckage.
Bulldozers stopped plowing the debris for a few hours after Ms. Begum was discovered, before starting operations again gingerly under flashlights.
Briefing reporters at the building collapse site, Gen. Suhrawardy said: “Reshma is totally OK. She worked hard to keep herself alive. That is a very strong woman.”
The last known survivor before Friday was killed on April 28 by a fire set off inadvertently by rescuers who were trying to cut through to free her.
The tragedy has shocked Bangladesh and the world, putting pressure on the government and foreign brands to improve safety conditions in the country’s 5,000 factories.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest producers of garments, supplying major U.S. and European retailers. The industry produces some of the world’s cheapest clothes, paying workers monthly wage rates as low as $40, a quarter those of China’s.
The government this week has begun an inspection of the country’s factories. On Wednesday, the government forced 18 factories to shut while they carried out safety improvements, including three owned by the country’s largest exporter of garments.
There have been few instances of people surviving longer than 10 days after disasters like earthquakes, according to academic studies. In 2010, after the Haiti earthquake, a teenage girl was rescued 15 days after the disaster.
The United Nations, which coordinates disaster relief, normally calls of search and rescue operations after a week or so and shifts its focus to tending to survivors.
In the past 10 days, focus has shifted to recovering hundreds of bodies that lay under rubble. The death toll has jumped by about 100 each day since Saturday, as salvage workers found huge numbers of bodies on the ground floor and basement.
On Friday, the toll rose to 1,050 people.
By SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD (May 10, 2013)
—Joe Lauria in New York contributed to this article.